Death of Wat Tyler, 15 June 1381

On this day in 1381 the leader of the ‘Peasants’ Revolt’, Wat Tyler, was killed in Smithfield. As Labour propose a new ‘garden tax’ in order to dispossess landowners, this extract from Graham Holderness’s Meat, Murder, Malfeasance, Medicine and Martyrdom: Smithfield Stories recalls the revolt, and shows how the opportunity of reform can be thrown away in the pursuit of violent insurrection.

Mile End, 14 June 1381, Night

Richard by the grace of God, king of England and France, and lord of Ireland, to all his bailiffs and faithful men to whom these present letters come, greetings. Know that by our special grace we have manumitted all our liegemen, subjects and others of the county of Kent; and we have freed and quitted each of them from bondage by these present letters. Henceforward no man shall be a serf nor make homage nor any kind of service to any lord, but shall give four pence for an acre of land. And no man shall serve any man except at his own will and by means of regular covenant. Henceforward all my subjects shall be free to buy or sell throughout the realm of England. We also pardon our said liege men and subjects for all felonies, acts of treason, transgressions and extortions performed by them or any one of them in whatsoever way. We also withdraw sentences of outlawry declared against them or any of them because of these offences. And we hereby grant our complete peace to them and each of them. In testimony of which we order these letters of ours to be made patent. Witnessed by myself at London on 14 June in the fourth year of my reign.[i]

Sitting under the canvas of a tent, by the light of a fire, Tyler had read the letter a dozen times, studied every clause, pored intensively over the stamp of the Great Seal. Usually, he knew, the king would use his own privy seal. But by Sudbury’s resignation Richard held the Great Seal in his own hands, conferring on these letters the unique and potent joint authority of state and crown, Chancellor and King.

As soon as the royal party had left Mile End, Tyler had taken a troop of Kentishmen and raced towards the Tower. There he found little or no defence, and they were able easily to penetrate the fortress and search for the traitors. They soon discovered Sudbury and Hale, dragged them unceremoniously onto Tower Hill and subjected them to summary execution. The king’s sergeant-at-arms, a physician and a lawyer met the same fate. Tyler had hoped to find John of Gaunt’s son Henry, and to take him hostage; but somehow he had been spirited out of the Tower and away. They chose not to return to the fortress, having no intention of being trapped inside the Tower as the king and court had been. And so Tyler rode to re-join the Essex rebels in their camp at Mile End.

The camp was a carnival of feasting and rejoicing. Word of the king’s concessions had spread through the host, and most of the rebels considered their objectives achieved. They were free; England was free; the young King was a true king. Who are you with? With King Richard and the true Commons!

But Tyler was gnawing at his lower lip. It had been too easy. He would like to have suspected treachery, but the letters patent lay undeniably in his hand, signed by the King, carrying the wax impression of the Great Seal.[ii] Absolute, ultimate, irrevocable. Why then was he dissatisfied? Had they not realised their vision, the dream of John Ball, a free people in a free realm?

No, he thought to himself. It cannot be so. The nobles still possess their lands, the rich their wealth, the powerful their armies. The people may be free to work and trade, buy, and sell, but still there was no equality. Sooner or later those in power would find new ways of oppressing the poor.

We have to cut deeper. We must have more than freedom; we must have power. Where does power lie? In land, in the law, in armies. The people had shown they could raise an army, and take London by force. They had shown they could wrest the law to their own ends, by executing the enemies of the people. But they had no land.

There had been a balancing, but not a reversal. The commons must expropriate the land, or they would never be truly free. All land to the commons. Agriculture, commerce, government, the military, all must be taken into public ownership. All power to the people. We will have a king bound by constitution to rule on behalf of the people. Or better still, no king at all, but a republic, ruled by a senate. Senatus atque Populus Anglicus. The Senate and the people of England.

‘How goes it, Wat?’ asked John Ball. ‘You are pensive and pale. What ails you, my man?’

‘The battle is won’, Tyler said, ‘but not the war. We must force the king to forfeit the land, to take it away from the lords and the church. All land to the commons. If he countermands, then we shall depose him, and throw down his throne. A council of the Commons shall rule in his stead’.

‘But he is our king!’ protested Jack Straw.

‘And what does it mean, to be our king? What do you mean by it, you, Jack Straw? The king who binds us in fealty’s fetters? The king to whom homage we’re forced to pay? The king to whom basely we bend the knee? If truly our king, he belongs to us: he is our creature; our puppet; our servant. We need a king to do our bidding, against the nobles, against the church. A king who’ll oppose all those who oppress us’.  

‘A King of kindness, liberty, love’, came the dreamy voice of John Ball. ‘Who will bring us back to the golden age. Back to the garden; back to God. As the prophets sang: ‘a little child shall lead them there’’.

‘Too far you go, man’, cried Straw to Tyler. ‘Miles too far. This follow a fantasy. Damn you, the only end to this, is death to all’. 

Tyler leaned over and seized Straw by the cloak, his white face incandescent in the firelight, his wild black eyes staring like those of a madman. ‘All power to the people’, he gabbled feverishly. ‘All land to the commons. If you are not with us, you are against us. If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out. Now the time is come. Now the time is come. Now the time is …’.

‘Back to Essex I mean to take my men’, interrupted Jack Straw. ‘Now. Tonight. This is folly, and follow we will not. It is not for this that we have fought’.

Tyler leapt to his feet, pushed Straw aside and stood in the doorway of the tent. ‘Send word to the king. On the morrow we’ll meet him. There is more to be said’. He thought for a moment. ‘Close to the city. Smithfield. Quickly, send’.

[i] The text is the letter issued by Richard to the men of Hertfordshire, and copied into Walsingham’s Chronica. See R.B. Dobson, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (London: Macmillan, 1970) 180-1.[i]

[ii] See Juliet Barker, England, Arise: the People, the King and the Great Revolt of 1381 (London: Little, Brown, 2014) 256.

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